Catch A Falling Star


I have made an arrangement of this for classroom use.  I would aim it at Year 5 or Year 6.  You can find the audio here:

and pdf’s here















In Year 3 we have a five week unit on tempo linked loosely to Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals”. The children have to listen to, sing and perform music with different tempi. We only learn five tempo directions in Year 3 – largo, andante, moderato, allegro and presto. The children need to learn the Italian terms and their English names as well as the generic term “tempo”.

The main task is to sing and play the Can-can on xylophones. I explain that Saint-Saens made a slow version of the Can-can and called it “Tortoises”. I then play them the original Can-can and we compare the speeds using Italian terms. Next we sing the Can-can chorus using the tongue-twister. The kids love this. We start “largo” and then repeat the song at a slightly faster tempo. It’s important to continuously refer to the Italian terms every time you get faster or slower. Then we play the Can-can on the xylophones.  I teach it by rote to start with, then give out sheets for the children to practice at school and at home. In Year 3, I do not write the letter names for the children, they fill them out in pencil using the C major scale diagram to help them.  I give them some time to play on their own and then we play it together in unison. This lesson is repeated with variations for the next two weeks so they have revisited the Italian terms and are fully ready to perform.  In the fourth week I record the children individually on the iPad. While I am recording, I book a TA to supervise the class practicing. After the recording, I airdrop the videos to my computer and then label each file.  The performance needs to show their fluency and accuracy.  I always give them up to three chances to play and pick which one they thought they played best. I don’t believe in high-stakes assessment so multiple chances is ethical and fair. I play these performances to parents at parent-teacher consultations and they love it because they can see exactly what their children can do and how much they are concentrating.  

The task has no differentiation but I do send a piano version of the Can-can for anyone who wants to play it at home who is also receiving piano lessons. I also model how to play perfectly; with a couple of mistakes; not great and absolutely awful. The children love this, especially when I make a whole set of dreadful mistakes and they know what they have to do to play the melody as well as possible. Our school doesn’t have many SEND students (although it is 90% EAL) so I haven’t felt the need to make any special allowances, but one student had a TA point at the note names and say them as he played as his reading fluency is poor. 

The fifth lesson is a little more relaxed, we still go through the Italian terms but this is the lesson where we bring in a little composition. The children make up their own animal pieces in pairs using any of the instruments in the room and the others have to guess what they could be according to the tempo and the timbre. This lesson has the least amount of learning and is normally a little chaotic but I do think the children need a little bit of unstructured time to experiment using instruments.  I always find it is best to put composition at the end of a unit as the children need to have had a lot of structured input before delving out in pairs.  I also think it is better to keep it as paired work.  When the children get into small groups it normally ends in disaster.

This will not mean that the children have learned about tempo.  I get them to write down the five tempos on whiteboards after a month doing something different.  I will also ask them to do this again near the end of the school year.  We have to interleave learning and allow the brain to forget and then relearn.  This makes the learning pathways stronger, coating synapses with myolin.  Nothing has truly been learned until it enters an individuals long term memory and so it is important to revisit these Italian terms sporadically so that they can never be forgotten again. 

Three Arrangements


At our school we have a partnership with Juilliard and we follow a curriculum which has a focus on keyboard skills and twelve core works.

I have made three arrangements of these works for tuned percussion ensemble.  The first “Battling Instruments” is a conversation between the soprano and alto xylophones and metallophones with a pulsating bass part.  It is based on a theme from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”.  This is a good springboard for developing material and changing structure.  You can play it straight or you can develop it.  The changes between four and three in a bar worked very well when we did this with Year 6.

The second is the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  This arrangement has started off very well and we have completed the first three pages with Year 6.  The end of it is a real challenge and we will be doing some more tomorrow in our lesson.  But if you just want to get as far as bar 27. that is a pretty good achievement too.

The third is “Eine Madchen oder Weibchen” from the “Magic Flute” by Mozart.  This will be our last arrangement of the year so if you want to be the first to perform it, feel free!

All the scores are on MuseScore – if you aren’t using this and you are a music teacher I would highly recommend it.  Sibelius is probably a better notation package, but the community support of MuseScore and the access to so many really well made scores has been a revelation for our department.

What can the UK learn from the PISA results?

I am currently reading “Cleverlands” by Lucy Crehan.  She describes her journey to five high-perfoming countries that have ranked near the top of the OECD PISA tests. She spent a month in each country examining their education system to see if there are any common similarities.  She went to Finland, Japan, Singapore, China and Canada.  Although this book is new this year, the most recent results have put South Korea right at the top, one of the country’s she did not visit.  Last week, I was listening to a pod-cast that Lucy Crehan was giving and she is currently in South Korea looking at their education system.  One thing to be aware of before reading further is that the results of PISA do change and currently Finland is starting to fall quite fast down the rankings and be replaced by countries such as India.

PISA 2017


PISA 2015


However, the five countries in Lucy’s book are still doing very well and she has found some common similarities:

  1. Children in high performing countries start school later than the UK at about 6 or 7
  2. There is a culture of working hard and an importance given to education from parents
  3. There is little to no personalization of the curriculum and children don’t move on until everyone has learned the knowledge or skills (mastery)
  4. Children use textbooks way more than in the UK and the curriculum is more detailed, more structured and teaches less but in more depth
  5. There are far less data requirements and accountability for teachers to deal with.

This is very different to the UK.  Point 1 means that all children are ready to learn when they are formally schooled.  Much of this though could be down to point 2, where parents ensure that their children are ready to learn.  Point number 3 means that all children access a similar curriculum where the expectation is that all will achieve.  And point number 4 means that students, teachers and parents know what is being studied, what they have studied and what is coming next.  Point 5 is that teachers do not need to spend so much time gathering data, possibly because of points 3 and 4.

Why did the UK move away from this?  Most of these points were what used to happen in the UK before the education revolutions of the past 25 years.  I think it is because of a false understanding of inclusion.  In the 90’s when David Blunkett was Education Secretary he wanted children like himself who had a disability to be able to go to mainstream schools with support.  And he was right.  But what happened next was the idea that all children should be in mainstream education with support, including children who had serious learning difficulties.  And then it snowballed into all children who aren’t making as much progress should be taught at their own levels within mainstream schools with support.  But the support was barely given and no government was prepared to finance teaching children in very small groups to meet all of their needs.  Ofsted did not help matters by constantly harping on about how high or low level students were achieving.  This all resulted in schools creating differentiated worksheets for three levels of ability in each class and detailed lesson plans containing three lessons for each individual class.  Very few textbooks had these type of differentiated activities so they were binned.  I remember walking past a table in a school a few years ago, piled high with textbooks ready for the bin-man.  I queried why and was told by a young teacher that good teachers didn’t use textbooks.  Where has this attitude come from?  Resource sites like Tesresources, Sparklebox and Twinkl sky-rocketed in popularity and teachers ended up spending a lot of time cutting and sticking work into exercise books.  This work had to be marked and personalized with colour codes and a conversation between students and teachers (the “triple marking”).  All teachers who questioned this approach were told that “this is what Ofsted wants”.

The common denominator is personalized learning in the UK.  It has been a disaster.  We have fallen down international rankings and we see that the countries doing the best do not do personalized learning at all.  See this graph from Greg Ashman:

personalised learning.jpg

The elephant in the room is that you cannot do personalized learning in a classroom with 20-30 children, unless you want all students to put on ear-phones and gaze at laptops and tablets all day.  Or maybe you have teachers that are either The Flash or you’re not too bothered about them burning-out with the workload.  It is not ethical, fair or practical to expect teachers to teach parallel lessons and it looks like it doesn’t even result in better learning.  In fact, it is the opposite – the more you personalize the curriculum, the worse your results.

We need much better quality textbooks and a reappraisal in the UK classroom that if you use textbooks it does not mean you aren’t a good teacher or a lazy teacher.  We need to move away from differentiated worksheets and have more time for intervention with children who are struggling.  This means shorter, simpler lessons with more playtime.  Lucy Crehan said that most the countries she saw all had a ten to fifteen minute break between lessons.  This is where intervention happens and it is short, targeted and immediate.  We need to cut most of the data requirements that teachers are being asked to do.  Perhaps an answer is to create summative assessments based on well designed textbooks that can be assessed by computer.  Anything that cannot be moderated this way should be done by comparative judgment.  Stop the crazy criteria-based marking that is subjective, time-consuming and relatively inaccurate.  Stop marking books and leaving a color-coded conversation, instead spend time going through homework with the whole class.

There will be savings on data, administration and photocopying.  There will be added costs in textbooks and playground supervisors.  But this would dramatically cut work-load and would be much more beneficial for children.

It does mean admitting we got it very wrong…


One of the more challenging areas in the school where I was working last year was the way we planned Music lessons.  Much of this was my own fault as I have spent most my career planning my own lessons and not delivering other people’s.  We were all in charge of a year group and planned lessons for that year group.  That sounds incredibly easy but you have to remember that this school had a thirteen form entry. It is the biggest British international school on a single campus in the world.  So my planning workload was pretty minimal as all I had to do was plan Year 2 Music curriculum lessons and Year 4 First Access violin lessons, put them on the server and copy resources to the Moodle.  But the flip side was we had a lot of classes to teach.  It was nice to work in an office and bounce ideas collaboratively. But the difficulty is simply trying to teach another teachers plan.  Every teacher is different and focuses on something you might not necessarily focus on yourself.  So the problem was having to be consistent about something that it was very hard to be consistent with, as you don’t ever fully understand what you are teaching if you didn’t plan it in the first place.  

It is also difficult to make learning build up when you have many people trying to implement what is naturally a fragmented system.  So my lessons were full of aural, Kodaly and songs but other people barely had any singing in at all as they were much more instrumentally focused.  You might think this is a good thing as the children could really experience a varied curriculum.  But in reality, the lessons I taught the worst were the ones where I found it hard to implement the planning and the most successful ones were the ones I planned myself as I knew exactly how to move the children on.  And I guess it was the same for the other teachers.

One of the reasons I chose this school was so I could experience more year groups.  In the last five years I had only taught EYFS and Key Stage 1 so it was a welcome change to have some Key Stage 2 classes.  It was probably the best way of divvying up the workload by working this way but the consequences were that you couldn’t really teach the children in your own manner.  What many educational theorists seem to misunderstand is that a teachers personality is tied to their pedagogy and the actual content of what is being delivered.  You can’t get motivated and excited about something that you yourself aren’t too bothered about.  It is good to be open minded and try new techniques but if it results in poorer quality lessons then there is a problem.  

I think if we had a better overview of the whole curriculum over many years and where we were heading it would have been better.  And I can see now why some schools (often North American ones) ask for a certain type of teacher in job adverts, specifying an Orff, Kodaly or Dalcroze approach.  If you want collaborative planning then you need all your team to understand the way you are going and why you are travelling that way.  Music teaching can be incredibly diverse and there have been vigorous debate when it comes to educational philosophy.  Even something like the Kodaly approach has arguments.  One debate, between “fixed doh” and “relative doh” has been going for over 80 years.  And still doesn’t look like being resolved!  (For what its worth, I’m a “fixed doh” convert.)  

In the UK, there is a big focus on reducing workload and one of the ways they are thinking of doing this is by having more centrally planned resources and planning documents.  Some teachers are distraught as planning for them is something personal and creative and they don’t want government meddling in that.  I think the answer is simple, we need to do common assessments but not dictate the way we get there.  That would mean in practice that all subjects should have centrally common low stakes testing and assessment at least every term of every year group.  How you get there is up to the teacher but there should be a plan for each lesson and a PowerPoint or flipchart if you might need it.  We have to have something in place in case we need to arrange emergency cover or if a new colleague really needs the guidance.  And with multiple year group entry you do need to have some consistency for clarity and progression purposes.  For example if you have communal singing you need to learn the same songs.  But if you insist that other teachers use your plan, you can end up really upsetting good teachers.  It shouldn’t matter how the lesson is planned, so long as we get to students to the same place.

I’ve been using Microsoft Teams to start making collaborative planning documents and resources.  I think this is s a better way to spread the workload and communicate with colleagues and to work to each others strengths.  As a start we have a unit title, a focus, a set works link and three songs.  This also stops the need for many meetings as the work can be shared out and refined. Hopefully with a whole years lessons and plans uploaded to Teams we can spend the time refining and improving lessons rather than reinventing the wheel. And if teachers want to do their own thing, that’s fine but they can’t complain about planning workload as there is already something available.  


I had a very successful lesson today improvising around the pentatonic scale.  What I find works is when you put improvising at the end of a scheme of work.  The Year 3 children had all learned how to sing and play the Chinese song Molihua (Jasmine Flower) on tuned percussion instruments.  They had learned the melody by rote and by reading it through the notation.  Some had played without annotation, others had written the letter names of the notes themselves (I don’t do this for them anymore!)

They all knew what a scale was, what a pentatonic scale was, and what notes to take off on their xylophones to play a pentatonic scale.  They had also been assessed on their ability to play Molihua and their performances were videoed and shown to their parents at parents’ evening (parents were really happy with this as they could see exactly how well their children were doing).  I had also given the Year 3’s a pretty tricky test, that they revised for using a knowledge organiser, most of whom got over 20/25.

So when it came to improvising the children had both knowledge and skills and didn’t need to think too hard about the content so they could focus on the skill of improvising.  I told the children what improvising meant and how it wasn’t about just playing any old thing.  I also explained that the best improvisers knew all their scales and used the scales to make music.  We all agreed we knew the pentatonic scale well and I modeled the improvising task with another pupil with all the class watching.  We both played Molihua and then I said her name and she improvised and then we both came back with the melody.  I wondered if I should bring in the term “rondo” but thought that was a word I could save for another time.  Improvising was enough for this lesson!

We then got the instruments out and I played the piano to accompany the children.  Everyone played the Molihua melody and everyone got a chance to improvise.  I didn’t spend much time on working on how to improvise really well – today was a lesson to just have a go and to be unafraid of creating music as you play.

I think the reason this lesson worked was because the improvisation part comes at the end of the scheme.  I also think this is a good model for any composition work that we do in Primary School.  Composition and improvisation needs to come after listening and performance.  Music teachers often bring in these tasks way too soon and what ends up is a free for all devoid of thinking, planning and dare I say it, creativity.  If you are doing a composition task in the first lesson of a scheme or at the start of a lesson it is probably not a great idea as you really need to have knowledge and skills to create music well.

This lesson could lead in nicely to a composition lesson on pentatonic scales but I have decided not to because we are going to return to pentatonic scales in Year 4 where we will revisit the learning in Year 3 and develop it into not just being about Chinese music but pentatonic music all around the world.  I will use some more challenging melodies like “Arirang” from Korea and “Amazing Grace” and we will develop our improvising into composition with a focus on how to craft a melody.




The Orchestra

The Orchestra is alive with strange creatures called musicians
Who lurk behind a music stand and study compositions
Their hours of sitting motionless require clinical physicians
And they suffer from tinnitus from the adverse noise conditions
They perform in frosty church halls, no need to make predictions
The truth is that their feet rot and need to hire pediatricians
Listen now as I go through the sectional positions
And explain how this organism has come to its fruition

The percussionists all pretend that they are incredible magicians
Who can play a hundred instruments and are skilled in demolition
They play their little drums like soldiers with unlimited ammunition
And bang and crash like toddlers without social inhibitions
They count almost audibly to show that they have mastered addition
But most the time they joke about crazy American politicians
If you meet this awful tribe avoid their coalition
Or you’ll end up being visited by the Spanish Inquisition

Why the brass are in the orchestra is a mystery of tradition
They should be in a marching band or scouting expedition
They are very contrary and love to be in opposition
When other instruments are playing soft they roar in loud sedition
They are the first to leave the concert and in the intermission
And have a considerable appetite for alcohol acquisition
Spend no time with these hedonists, there’s no need for definition
The brass will make you wish for the return of prohibition

The woodwind are a pain as most require transposition
The flutes are the exception but are annoying aestheticians
They all believe they’re amazing and revel in renditions
Of ornithological, ornamental birdsong emissions
They like to discuss the merits of different scored editions
And talk of recapitulation and sonata form exposition
If you want to be a know-it-all and a cultural patrician
Join the woodwind union – if you pass their hard audition

The section of the orchestra with the most adverse competition
Is the strings with their hierarchy that shows their grave ambition
The violins see advancement up the ranks as their very holy mission
Yet no one knows what a viola is, they are always an omission
The cellos think they’re the embodiment of an instrument beautician
And basses bore us all with speeches from the European Union commission
Don’t even try to buy a harp, they cost half a million
Just avoid all the strings – and campaign for their abolition

The Orchestra is an unruly beast, they must be treated with suspicion
They should all listen carefully and not speak without permission
Instrumentalists think they’re clever, full of very wise erudition
They fancy themselves as philosophers – as Hegelian dialecticians
They need to know who is the boss, and must bow in recognition
That the conductor is the greatest so fall in subdued submission
So now my friends it is time to give my final admonition
Obey the baton for it’s wielded by the masterful tactician


The Chief Inspector of OFSTED, Amanda Spielman, has released this paper.  It is refreshing to know that the focus of OFSTED is going to be the curriculum, as from my experience it has been thoroughly neglected in Music.  Much of this is due to the vast majority of music educationalists being constructivists.  If you have a philosophy that students construct their own learning, then  you can end up without any sense of curriculum unless it is completely underpinned by skills.  But in such a curriculum you could end up with students not studying anything before the Year 2000.  According to OFSTED, there is an attitude prevalent in many schools that classical music is a no-go area for students.  Point 18 of their report into the curriculum says “Classical music, as a serious component of the curriculum, was treated as a step too far in most of the primary and secondary schools surveyed, at least until Key Stage 4. It was felt by teachers and leaders to be too difficult or inaccessible for pupils.”  This is one reason that we need to think very clearly about what is taught as well as what is learned.  Most constructivists would be horrified that the curriculum could be narrowed by their philosophy.  But I have certainly come across some of the attitudes mentioned in this report and we need to take it seriously that there are music teachers and school leaders that do not think content matters.

The National Curriculum for Music in England and Wales is incredibly short – primary takes up less than a page of A4.  Some teachers like this as there is freedom to develop it any way they want.  The problem is that many schools can take this to mean that music is not important and can be covered by assemblies, a nativity and a summer concert.  To counter this we should be talking about curriculum content.  If we specify at least some of the content then it is more likely that this will be taught.  And we all know that what gets taught is what is assessed.  So we should be making curriculum content that can be learned, memorized and tested.  The “t” word is very unfashionable in music education and I am not looking for a Music SAT.  But low stakes testing in Music could actually result in content being delivered and pupils knowing more about the wonderful world of music that we often take for granted.  

One way to think about content is through the use of knowledge organizers.  These are a one A4 page of content that we are studying this term.  They need to be clear, concise and testable.  I have written one for Year 2 and one for Year 3 and I will be publishing them soon.  I have handed them out to the pupils this week and the class teachers have been given a copy.  I will see how the pupils respond and whether it has made any difference around Christmastime when we finish the unit.  However, the real test will be whether they can remember it before we leave for the summer holiday.  Can they retain the information over time?  Surely, that is one of the aims we should have for music education – that what they learn is stored robustly in each child’s long term memory.  Do children know the difference between a clarinet and a bassoon?  Do they know the names of at least two composers from the 18th century?  Can they name some early Blues musicians?  

Please don’t think that I am against musical skills, I certainly am not.  But I am very skeptical about constructivism.  I think teachers should be setting the curriculum – not the students. I don’t have any problems with the notion that the teacher is an authority and that some content is more valuable than others.  And the person best placed to make these judgements is the teacher, not the child.